The Far-Ranging Costs of the Mess in the Gulf

A blown oil well in the Gulf of Mexico creates an environmental catastrophe — but the accident could at last provide the impetus to craft an energy policy that is smart, pragmatic and green

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Eric Gay / AP

Oil blobs and oil sheen gather in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La.

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The facts are much more complex than bumper-sticker slogans admit. The U.S. needs energy — lots and lots of energy — and 37.1% of it is currently supplied by oil. As the population expands and the policy decisions and technological innovations needed to make the switch to green, renewable energy sources lag, thirst for the stuff is only going to grow. Critics have long lamented that when it comes to energy policy, 9/11 was an opportunity for the country to have an honest debate about the choices it needs to make if it's ever going to break its addiction to oil. "We need to address the underlying issue," says Lisa Margonelli, director of the New America Foundation's Energy Policy Initiative, "and that's our dependence on oil." Having a national conversation now — an adult one — is the only way forward.

What Went Wrong
When David Rainey, BP's vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, appeared before the Senate last November, he had a simple message: Offshore drilling is safe and reliable. New rules proposed by the Interior Department that would have tightened regulations on offshore exploration were unnecessary. "I think we need to remember that [offshore drilling] has been going on for the last 50 years, and it has been going on in a way that is both safe and protective of the environment," Rainey said at the time.

Not quite, as it turns out. Investigators are still exploring exactly what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon, but the catastrophe seems to have been the result of a cascading series of failures — and too little oversight. Rigs are equipped with blowout preventers, 40-ft.-high (12 m) stacks of machinery with multiple hydraulic valves that are designed to seal a well should anything go wrong. Crew members on the Horizon couldn't activate the blowout preventer, and a deadman's switch that should have kicked in when control of the rig was lost failed as well. One safety feature the Horizon did not have is an acoustic switch, an additional backup that can activate the blowout preventer remotely. Regulators don't mandate them in the U.S., though they are effectively required in nations like Brazil and Norway.

When the rig sank, the riser — the pipe that runs from the wellhead to the surface — fell as well, kinking as it did and causing three breaks, from which thousands of barrels of oil are leaking each day. "There were multiple chances to stop this," says Malcolm Spaulding, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island. "And they all failed."

It will take time to figure out if that failure resulted from some negligence on the part of BP, one of the other companies involved with the construction of the rig or, frankly, something closer to what Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested: an "act of God." For now, BP and the government have more pressing concerns. Until they figure out a way to seal the blown well, the oil will keep gushing. And the location of the drill site — a mile (1.6 km) below the surface, where the pressure is more than a ton per square inch — means that all the work needs to be done remotely. It's like performing "open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet [1,500 m] in the dark with robot-controlled submarines," as BP America head Lamar McKay told ABC News on May 2.

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